The Chappaquiddick Island incident — the drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne — seems almost quaint now, from an era when major political scandals were actually a big deal. It seems almost impossible now to fathom, from here in our current 24-hour political news media hellscape, but there was a time when world leaders weren’t (literally or figuratively) driving their cars off bridges all day every day. So when it happened, it mattered. Too bad John Curran’s Chappaquiddick didn’t consider this, as it might have been just the angle to hold this wreck together.
I feel bad for Kate Mara as Kopechne, here relegated to what amounts to a dead body used to kick off the story. We never really get to know Mary Jo before she ends up in the water, learning only that she knew Ted Kennedy from working on Robert Kennedy’s political team and that he considered her “family.” So then why does he just leave her floating in the water? Because he doesn’t actually care that much about her? He’s evil? Scared? An idiot? The movie briefly considers each of these options before deciding, no, it doesn’t have an answer. But since Chappaquiddick also doesn’t really grant that we might care to know anything about Mary Jo in the first place, it hardly matters.
A lot of this has to be laid behind the scenes, since Jason Clarke never gets a chance to show up and do much beyond look and sound enough like Ted Kennedy that we don’t get distracted and laugh at his and Ed Helms’ hair and accents (they’re fine, only occasionally swerving into the Mayor Quimby lane). Clarke has to deal with a bizarre script that has him getting slapped in the face by his father (Bruce Dern as Joe Kennedy) and literally stomping around like a petulant little brat after being told not to wear a neck brace to Kopechne’s funeral — he even yells, “I hate you guys! I can wear what I want!” It’s hilarious! But it’s also an embarrassing mishandling of the overall tone that leaves the film feeling like an Illuminati soap opera or a more dramatic handling of That’s My Bush!-type material.
So was Teddy the Fredo of the Kennedy boys? That would be great and all, but we never get anyone to compare him to. Our real-world images of John, Robert and even Joe Jr. are insufficient when confronted with the scene that has Teddy tell his father, “I could be them. I can be charming, brilliant, charismatic,” only for Joe to respond, “You will never be great.” That scene should come at the end of a three-hour biopic of the Kennedy brothers, not this movie. But here it’s plopped right in the middle and out of the blue.
The only true relationship in the film worth examining, between Ted and his “adopted brother” and attorney Joe Gargan (Helms), is consistently tossed to the side in order to serve the procedural elements of the story to not much end. For a family so deeply embedded into the fabric of 20th-century American politics, you’d think drama would be easy to pull from. But leave it to Chappaquiddick to wash it all away.